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The Myths of Margaret Thatcher, Sermon on the Mound Edition

17 April 2013

12:49 PM

17 April 2013

12:49 PM

Like Iain Martin, I was not sure a full ceremonial funeral was quite appropriate for Margaret Thatcher. That is not to dismiss her achievements or her significance, merely to wonder if such pomp was wholly suitable for a figure who has proved as divisive in death as she was in life.

And yet, the majesty of the service at St Paul’s worked its magic. Combining grandeur with simplicity it said simply this: Margaret Hilda Thatcher mattered.  It is hard to think of other non-Royal Britons who will be afforded, far less merit, this kind of send-off.

I thought the Bishop of London’s address splendid. It deftly punctured some of the myths that surround the Thatcher legacy. She was, in truth, always more complicated than either her admirers or her enemies admitted. Chartres quoted her 1988 speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Remembered now as a hymn to materialism, money and greed it was nicknamed The Sermon on the Mound. But, as ever, the myth has corrupted reality. It is worth returning to the actual text.

Interrupted by applause several times, it is an address marked by a humility that might surprise those nurtured on the Thatcher caricature. This was the most “controversial” passage:

May I also say a few words about my personal belief in the relevance of Christianity to public policy—to the things that are Caesar’s?

The Old Testament lays down in Exodus the Ten Commandments as given to Moses , the injunction in Leviticus to love our neighbour as ourselves and generally the importance of observing a strict code of law. The New Testament is a record of the Incarnation, the teachings of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Again we have the emphasis on loving our neighbour as ourselves and to “Do-as-you-would-be-done-by”.

I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life.

We are told we must work and use our talents to create wealth. “If a man will not work he shall not eat” wrote St. Paul to the Thessalonians. Indeed, abundance rather than poverty has a legitimacy which derives from the very nature of Creation.

Nevertheless, the Tenth Commandment—Thou shalt not covet—recognises that making money and owning things could become selfish activities. But it is not the creation of wealth that is wrong but love of money for its own sake. The spiritual dimension comes in deciding what one does with the wealth. How could we respond to the many calls for help, or invest for the future, or support the wonderful artists and craftsmen whose work also glorifies God, unless we had first worked hard and used our talents to create the necessary wealth? And remember the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment.

[…] None of this, of course, tells us exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have. On this point, Christians will very often genuinely disagree, though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect. [Applause] What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.

We are all responsible for our own actions. We can’t blame society if we disobey the law. We simply can’t delegate the exercise of mercy and generosity to others. The politicians and other secular powers should strive by their measures to bring out the good in people and to fight down the bad: but they can’t create the one or abolish the other. They can only see that the laws encourage the best instincts and convictions of the people, instincts and convictions which I’m convinced are far more deeply rooted than is often supposed.

Nowhere is this more evident than the basic ties of the family which are at the heart of our society and are the very nursery of civic virtue. And it is on the family that we in government build our own policies for welfare, education and care.

You recall that Timothy was warned by St. Paul that anyone who neglects to provide for his own house (meaning his own family) has disowned the faith and is “worse than an infidel”.

We must recognise that modern society is infinitely more complex than that of Biblical times and of course new occasions teach new duties. In our generation, the only way we can ensure that no-one is left without sustenence, help or opportunity, is to have laws to provide for health and education, pensions for the elderly, succour for the sick and disabled.

But intervention by the State must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility. The same applies to taxation; for while you and I would work extremely hard whatever the circumstances, there are undoubtedly some who would not unless the incentive was there. And we need their efforts too.

As I say, a more nuanced vision than that which is sometimes remembered. Wealth is necessary because of what it allows us to do, not because it is valuable for itself. Building a community without wealth or work is akin to making bricks without straw. Possible, perhaps, but less than ideal. She added:

Nevertheless I am an enthusiast for democracy. And I take that position, not because I believe majority opinion is inevitably right or true—indeed no majority can take away God-given human rights—but because I believe it most effectively safeguards the value of the individual, and, more than any other system, restrains the abuse of power by the few. And that is a Christian concept.

But there is little hope for democracy if the hearts of men and women in democratic societies cannot be touched by a call to something greater than themselves. Political structures, state institutions, collective ideals—these are not enough.

We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.

But when all is said and done, the politician’s role is a humble one.

It is true that Mrs Thatcher’s actions did not always honour that truth or make good its promise. Nevertheless it is surely something worth remembering and a truth that her successors might also contemplate.

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